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I recently attended the Paris International Air Show held at Le Bourget. This is a highly regarded international industry event featuring the latest technology in civil and military aviation. The event is attended by most of the major companies in the industry, governments from around the world, and lots of folks who just like to watch airplanes fly. The technology on display was awesome – you have not lived until you've seen the new Airbus A-380 fly by at 50 feet off the runway! The new composite-skin Boeing 787 Dreamliner was also there, as well as many other impressive displays of advanced technology.
The show hosted a sizable U.S. congressional delegation and I was able to attend a few events where I exchanged views with several U.S. senators and congressmen, not to mention senior military folks and other government leaders from around the world. I always tried to steer the conversation to Vermont and the potential basing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter here. To my surprise, people were generally well aware of this. There were a couple of interesting things that turned up in my conversations.
First, there was always a high level of respect for the "Green Mountain Boys," in spite of the occasional reference to "Burrrrrrrr ... lington" (many seemed impressed how cold our winters can get). I was struck by how well known and how highly regarded our 158th Fighter Wing is within the U.S. military and, in fact, internationally. From our local perspective, we don't always notice this fact. I think it is important to recognize that this unit brings a lot of prestige to Vermont.
Second, there was a general view that basing one of the first squadrons of this aircraft in our state was an honor. The U.S. military is more often today in the business of decommissioning units and closing bases. The fact that they are looking to base this leading edge squadron in Vermont, making a significant ongoing commitment to the state, reflects really well on Vermont and on the unit.
Third, there was a general recognition that having the F-35 can be transformational if leveraged appropriately. The potential economic boost is significant and the fighter brings leading edge technological capabilities to the state that will foster new skills, providing the potential to kick start new business opportunities. It is not all hardware, either. I had a long briefing by several enthusiastic young engineers about the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) that is incorporated into this airplane. To my non-technical ears, this sounded like a highly sophisticated information system that collects terabytes of data about every aspect of aircraft performance on every flight. The information can be used for predictive maintenance and to analyze improvement opportunities. People tell me “big data” is the next big thing in information technology (recent NSA developments not withstanding) and wouldn’t it be great to see Vermont at the forefront of this area of leading information technology innovation?
I would characterize the senators and congressmen from other states I spoke with as being, to a person, envious. As one senator said, "We'd have done just about anything to get that squadron based in my state." They all saw this as bringing a level of prestige to Vermont and providing a big economic boost. I think kudos are due to our congressional delegation for their ability to make this happen for us. Most of the folks I spoke with were actually confused that there would be a local controversy. Their anecdotal view on the noise issue was that, in fact, with the new Pratt Whitney engine and sophisticated engine management systems the plane may actually be quieter than the current F-16s.
In case any of you were wondering, I am not in the aviation business, the defense industry, or related to the military. I was at the air show for some tangential business reasons. I am, however, a Vermont resident concerned with job growth, economic development and the development of an advanced technology base in our state. I often think our internal debate on topics like the F-35 issue get a bit insular and I was struck by the external reaction to it at this venue, not least that it is so internationally recognized thought it was worth interjecting these observations into the discussion.
Reynold W. Mooney lives in Waitsfield.